NORFOLK, Va. – With midterm election season rapidly approaching, Republicans and Democrats have something in common when it comes to recruiting candidates they hope will deliver majorities in Congress: a preference for military veterans.
Both parties anticipate a significant number of races where veterans will be opposing each other, using their military service as a foundation of their appeal even as they hold widely diverging views on issues.
Democrats are clinging to threadbare advantages in both the House and Senate, so the success of these candidates could determine the balance of power.
The chaotic winding down of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan — combined with President Joe Biden's blaming his predecessor's policies for much of what occurred — could resonate with voters in ways not seen since opposition to the Iraq War helped Democrats retake the House in 2006.
“When the U.S. suffers a very public defeat ... historically, that’s the kind of thing that does become an issue in the next election," said Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.
In few places are military matters more likely to dominate the debate than in Norfolk, Virginia, and the surrounding area. It's a swing congressional district along the Atlantic coast and home to the world's largest naval base. One in 5 residents are active military personnel, veterans or their relatives.
Rep. Elaine Luria, a Democrat, served as naval commander, including on aircraft carriers that once helped stage Afghanistan bombing runs. She defeated an incumbent Republican, Scott Taylor, a former Navy SEAL, in 2018 and again in a rematch in 2020.
Veteran candidates can be seen as more willing to put country above self, which often plays best among moderate voters and in swing districts without a dominant political ideology.
“One of the reasons you see veterans on veterans is because the thought process is that just neutralizes that advantage,” Taylor said. “Both parties are looking for that.”
This year, among those hoping to capture the Republican nomination and challenge Luria is another veteran, ex-Navy helicopter pilot Jen Kiggans, a state senator.
Luria, who sits on the House Armed Services, Homeland Security, and Veterans’ Affairs Committees, said that in her district, someone who has served “instantly goes into this with a level of credibility and connection.”
Kiggans believes that, too: “Understanding the nuances of military life and being a military family member, a military spouse, I think those are really all very important to representing the district well.”
“There should be more of us,” Kiggans, who deployed to the Middle East during her 10-year naval career, said of running against a fellow female veteran in Luria. "I think veterans truly understand a lot of issues that are important to the country and we love the country, we’ve fought for the country, we’ve sacrificed for the country.”
The number of veterans who may face other veterans for congressional seats in 2022 won't be known until after next summer's primary season. In 2020, 17 House and Senate general election races featured two candidates' having military experience, according to With Honor Action, a nonpartisan organization that promotes veterans for elective office.
Similar veteran-against-veteran races occurred 21 times two years before that.
During that 2018 cycle, Democrats stressed recruiting candidates with military experience to appeal to swing voters — and ultimately won House control.
Now candidates will be addressing issues such as the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol in January and the fractious evacuation of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, with their military backgrounds seen as giving them added credibility.
Roughly two-thirds of Americans said they did not think America’s longest war was worth fighting, according to a poll released this past week from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. While 52% approve of Biden on national security, the poll was conducted Aug. 12-16 as the two-decade war in Afghanistan ended with the Taliban returning to power and capturing the capital of Kabul.
Republicans nearly took control of the House in 2020, when all 15 seats they flipped featured women, minority or veteran candidates.
Illinois Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Air Force veteran, said serving in Afghanistan “makes me believe in a cause bigger than myself," even though what's occurring there now has left him “very bitter.”
None of Kinzinger's major challengers so far is a veteran. Still, veteran-on-veteran races are taking shape around the country.
Oregon Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio is his state's longest-serving member of Congress and an Air Force Reserve veteran. He's gearing up for a possible second consecutive race against Republican Alek Skarlatos, a former Army National Guardsman who, along with four others, stopped a gunman during a 2015 terrorist attack on a Paris-bound train.
In suburban Houston, Democrat Matt Berg, who served in the Air Force, is hoping to unseat first-term Rep. Troy Nehls, an Army veteran who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It brings a more broad base appeal as a candidate,” said Berg who noted that the district saw about a 5-percentage point drop between its 2020 support for Biden and its nonveteran Democrat who ran for Congress. "We do feel it will help us reach out to voters who felt that Nehls' military background was a pivotal factor.”
The move into politics is not always smooth for veterans, considering that the military consistently polls as among the nation’s most-respected, most trusted institutions — and Congress decidedly does not.
Rye Barcott, a former Marine who is co-founder and CEO of With Honor, said his group advises veterans considering a run that “it is a hardship post.” He added: “It’s going to be painful but you’re doing it as a service to something larger than yourself.”
The number of female veterans running for Congress as major party nominees has increased even more sharply from 14 in 2018 to 28 vying for seats in the House or Senate last year.
Still, Seth Lynn, executive director of Veterans Campaign, a nonprofit which helps make it easier for veterans to seek public office, said that since 2000, fewer than 25 House races pitting veterans against veterans featured at least one female candidate from a major party. None had two women running against each other.
That makes the potential Luria-Kiggans race something that hasn't happened in at least a generation.
Rebecca Burgess, founder of the advocacy group the CivMil Project, said she expects to see more congressional races involving matchups of female veterans. But a potentially even more potent reason is “the power of example" where more female veterans in Congress means mentors for those looking to emulate them.
Luria may have gotten a firsthand glimpse of that when she addressed a recent luncheon at Naval Station Norfolk. Navy Lt. Courtney Janowicz posed for a picture with the congresswoman and chatted about the pairs' shared experiences, having both worked on ships in shipyards.
Asked if she could eventually see herself following Luria's path into politics, Janowicz beamed before proclaiming, “I can see it now.”
Associated Press writer Padmananda Rama in Washington contributed to this report.